Web Exclusives: On
Working closely with
brilliance and getting the hang of it
By John Lurz '03 johnlurz@Princeton.EDU
Dry mouth, sweaty palms, and a racing heartbeat
accompanied me as I walked into my thesis adviser's office last
week. It was our first meeting. I had a few rough ideas about a
topic bouncing around in my head, but the sight of Princeton University
Professor of English D. Vance Smith immediately ejected them from
my mind like a pilot in a flight emergency. And it wasn't because
Professor Smith is an intimidating figure. Far from it. He is a
tall, reserved man who wears little round glasses. His goatee, neatly
trimmed, is delicately scattered with gray. His gentle accent, though
slight, reminds me he grew up in South Africa. No, it wasn't his
actual appearance that emptied my mind, it was the need I felt to
be as intelligent and as much of an expert as I envisioned Professor
Smith to be.
That afternoon, I imagined him as a draconian
task master ready to impatiently fling me out of his office for
lacking a definite and completely formulated not to mention
brilliant thesis topic. I imagined that an eminent and busy
professor would not take any more time than completely necessary
to work with a babbling, incoherent undergraduate.
Which was why his first question "How
was your summer?" immediately startled me into a rambling
chain of prattle about summer days spent hiking in New Hampshire.
Did Professor Smith really care about my summer or was he just being
polite, I wondered. When I finally remembered all the manners my
parents taught me and asked him about his summer, he responded with
tales of teaching and traveling with his family.
All of a sudden, words like "my wife"
and "vacation" were coming out of his mouth. Is Professor
Smith a real person who has actual human relationships, I asked
myself? Does he actually lead a life outside of being an articulate
and accomplished Medievalist lecturing on Chaucer? Is he also a
husband, friend and colleague who interacts with people the way
my friends and I do? As we talked, I began to realize the pigeonhole
I'd put Professor Smith into was quite a narrow and limited view
We continued chatting, talking about the classes
I was taking and the ones he was teaching, about my plans for next
year, and about a friend of mine who is a former advisee of his.
I suddenly felt the need to stop "wasting" his time and
get to the point of the meeting. I thought that he must have more
important things to do: maybe work on his own writing or prepare
a lecture for the next day.
I began, almost in spite of myself, to repeat
the rehearsed lines about the relationship between memory and writing
that I hoped I could develop into a viable thesis topic for my English
degree. I'd written my junior paper on a theory of the novel in
which memory played a crucial role and wanted to expand a bit on
that. The way writing aids or harms the faculty of memory had interested
me since I began aspiring to write my own fiction.
When Professor Smith began asking me questions
about my ideas, I felt threatened did he not think they were
smart ideas? Had I ruined my chance for impressing him? How could
I salvage something of this meeting? I began to sweat more, and
my heartbeat surged as I tried to think about his questions and
respond with intelligent answers. Was I saying the right thing,
I wondered? What did he think? Was he going to send me out of his
office with a look of disdain and contempt?
And as I responded to his questions and he responded
to my answers with comments or more questions, I grew used to the
dialectic, falling easily into the Socratic method. Teasing relevant
ideas from my garbled words, Professor Smith formulated and repeated
back to me in a more coherent and clear style what I had blathered
to him. After a few minutes, we had a viable beginning point for
a topic, were assembling a reading list, and we were both excited
about the prospect of the work ahead. The idea had been mine from
the start, but I just needed the help of Professor Smith to focus
it into something about which I could write 80+ pages. He told me
to email him sometime in the coming week and we could set up another
He told me, though, that I shouldn't hesitate
to hound him for appointments and attention, admitting that he could
be a bit absent-minded. At that moment I realized that professors
are people too.
Professor Smith as well as every other
professor on our campus have real feelings, real relationships,
and don't just exist as talking heads in front of a group of cowering
undergrads. They aren't perfect; they have doubts; they aren't always
sure of things. And sometimes they forget about their advisees.
It was undoubtedly an immature viewpoint that
I held of my adviser that probably hints at my own insecurities
and self-confidence issues more than I'd like to acknowledge. Yet,
from what I've heard from talking with my friends, I'm not the only
one who thinks this way.
It's not our job, though, to be perfect, brilliant
academics; we're supposed to flounder around with ideas, and professors
are supposed to help us. Professors enjoy taking time to work with
students. If you've ever taught anything, you know the satisfaction
that comes from that look of comprehension or from watching someone
accomplish a goal you've helped them to achieve.
It's important to remember that someone helped
these professors to get where they are and that many times they
are learning as much from you as you are from them. One day
be it tomorrow or further in the future, whether it be in academia,
business, or any other field you'll be helping and teaching
reach John at johnlurz@Princeton.EDU